JOINT REVIEW: The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
Janine: Aliette de Bodard’s new fantasy novel, The House of Shattered Wings, takes place in an alternate late twentieth century Paris, a city peopled not just by humans but also by fallen angels cast out of Heaven by the Christian God for reasons they themselves do not recall.
The Fallen and some of the humans are divided into groups called Houses. Sixty years before the book opens, the Houses began to fight among themselves, the genesis for a Great War which unleashed magical weapons on the city. Now Paris is run down, studded with magical booby traps, and the Seine, the river which was once its heart, horribly polluted.
The book opens when a new Fallen, Isabelle crashes to the earth. Selene, head of House Silverspires, rescues Isabelle and captures Philippe, one of her attackers, and takes them both back to the House, but not before Philippe has injured Isabelle and created a psychic bond between them. Everyone assumes Philippe is mortal, but the reader soon learns otherwise.
Isabelle is vulnerable to others who would steal her magic by killing her, and therefore needs the protection of Silverspires, while Philippe wants only to be freed from any connection to the House. Where Philippe is concerned, Selene has other ideas. Her goal is to examine Philippe and deduce just how and why his magic works. If she can’t figure it out, she may just kill him. In the meantime, she uses Silverspires’ magic to chain him to the House.
The book also has a fourth central character, the House’s alchemist, Madeleine, who is human. Madeleine is addicted to angel essence, a substance that gives her some powers, but such a depedency is against Selene’s rules. Twenty years ago, Madeleine was a minor member of another House, Hawthorn, and the Fallen she loved, Elphon, died in a coup from within. Madeleine barely survived and was brought to Silverspires by its previous leader, Morningstar, the first fallen angel, on the very last day he was seen.
In Morningstar’s time, Silverspires was the most powerful of the Fallen’s Houses. Morningstar’s presence and power made him and his House seem invincible. But twenty years before, Morningstar, who had trained Selene and others before her, disappeared without a word and left no trace.
One day, Philippe and Isabelle wander into Notre Dame, which in the novels is part of Silverspires, and Philippe finds a mirror. When he touches it something passes into him, and later into Paris. Philippe begins to have visions. Morningstar plays a prominent role in these visions which Philippe comes to realize are someone else’s memories, impressions of that other person’s anger and hatred for Silverspires.
Soon, people associated with Silverspires begin dying. A dangerous being stalks the House person by person, draining its Fallen victims of blood and magic. Human victims are instead infused with magic until it kills them.
Meanwhile, Philippe has hatched a plan to escape the chains of Silverspires’ magic, but this requires aid from another party who will only help Philippe if he betrays the House’s weakness to an enemy. Isabelle learns of Philippe’s plans and must decide whether her allegiance to Silverspires, on which her life depends, is greater than her loyalty to Philippe.
For his part, Philippe has no allegiance to Silverspires; quite the contrary. Not only is he imprisoned by Selene’s magic, Philippe has seen his homeland, Annam, colonized by the Fallen, and he and his fellow Annamites were brought to Paris to fight in the Houses’ Great War. Philippe suffered personal losses in the war, and he is homesick for the country that he loved but cannot return to, so he hates the House system and views it as corrupt.
It is up to Philippe, Isabelle, Madeleine and Selene to figure out who is stalking Silverspires and why — if they can bring themselves to cooperate with each other, and in Phillippe’s case, to care about Silverspires’ fate.
Sunita: Great recap! It’s hard to do spoiler-free justice to all the different threads and characters. I really enjoyed the slow build of the plot. You’re thrown into the quickly and you just have to read and trust the author to make it worth your while, but that was definitely the case for me.
Janine: Yes! I loved the slow build up. The novel is written in third person with three viewpoint characters – Philippe, Selene and Madeleine. Isabelle, a combination of power, innocence, and canniness, is important to the storyline, but she’s seen only through the eyes of these three; readers have no access to her point of view.
The writing is powerful, rich with atmosphere, and psychological. Although the structure is linear, there are a many small flashbacks in which the characters reflect on their pasts. With one exception in which a flashback seemed ill-timed, I loved that.
Sunita: De Bodard is very effective at establishing atmosphere and getting you into the heads of the characters. The cerebral and the emotional are well balanced, and I agree the writing is powerful. You have to pay attention or you’ll miss stuff, because she doesn’t signpost everything and the prose isn’t showy. This book is quite different from her Aztec mystery series (and less overtly bloody), but I think it will appeal to readers who enjoyed those.
Janine: The characters here were all interesting. My favorite, and the closest thing to a central character, was Philippe. Although he was a near- immortal, he felt more grounded than the other characters – even Madeleine, who was human.
Part of this was because Philippe was vulnerable throughout, first to Selene, then to whatever it was he’d released from the mirror in Notre Dame, but part of it was because he was far more aware of the way power, privilege and pride had corrupted Silverspires and the other Houses.
I did get a little tired of Philippe’s thoughts about power creating injustices because it was repeated a lot. It couldn’t be more true but it’s a problem that’s much easier to point out than to suggest a solution to, since human beings, like other animals, have always been drawn to hierarchical structures. I would have loved to have seen the alternatives to the House system, such as the gang Philippe initially belonged to, or the Jade Emperor’s court in Annam, explored in greater detail.
Sunita: I think we’re in Philippe’s POV the most, so it’s not surprising to me that I found him the most compelling. He has a fascinating backstory, and as the wronged outsider from an exploited culture, he’s sympathetic to me even when he’s behaving badly. It’s an interesting choice, and it made me forget that he was a powerful man within his constraints. The men in this story feel more structurally powerful than the women, and there are several instances where it’s clear that the even the relatively powerful women are subordinate to men’s choices and whims.
I read the whole book as being about power and the ways in which power shapes relationships and identities, so I didn’t notice the repetition you did. Philippe’s relationship to Selene and Silverspires is analogous to the Paris/Annam one, so the power issues are always front and center, and his liminality between the two societies meant that he often saw the contradictions more keenly than the characters who were firmly in one or the other.
I guess I don’t really agree that all humans are naturally hierarchical, or at least that all societies are necessarily hierarchical, certainly not to the extent represented by the Western-aristocratic model of the Houses. The glimpses of the society under the Seine and Philippe’s original gang seemed to offer an alternative, but there wasn’t enough there for us to really know.
Janine: You make a great point that some systems are less hierarchical than others. I wasn’t certain whether those alternative systems were truly more just, or whether Philippe was partial to them because they were better to him. The gang likely wouldn’t have been kind to Isabelle, and the other courts also had rulers. Certainly Philippe’s situation in Silverspires was unjust, but I felt he saw the House system mostly in black and white terms, whereas the novel seemed to signal that as messed up as it was, it had shades of gray.
I was also frustrated with Madeleine’s repetitive thinking. Her thoughts circled back to her trauma at Hawthorn and her craving for angel essence, but the latter is to be expected of an addict and in the end, Madeleine proved herself capable of heroism.
Sunita: Madeleine struck me as the “veteran outsider,” female version of Philippe, except with the addiction issue. She too has lost a lot in the House Wars and had no control over what happened to her.
Janine: True, yet Madeleine was far more committed to the House system than Philippe. She was an outsider-insider in that way.
I thought Selene was the most conventional and least interesting of the characters, but what was most enjoyable about the viewpoint shifts is that none of the three POV characters had much fondness for the other two, so we get to see those three from different angles.
Sunita: I found Selene more interesting, and ultimately more sympathetic, than you did. When we meet her she’s pretty unappealing, but as the story unfolds I realized what a no-win situation she was in and how difficult her choices were. She was constantly under the shadow of Morningstar and fighting rearguard actions against the other Houses. By the end, her more intimate scenes touched me.
Janine: Selene was in a no-win scenario but if she’d given Philippe the benefit of the doubt, she might have been better prepared. I got more frustrated with her over time. At first all she knew about Philippe’s character was that he’d harmed Isabelle. Later, she had some clues that he might be worth listening to, but she still wasn’t interested in hearing what he had to say. Still, I too became more aware of her vulnerability and found her later intimate scenes touching.
The novel draws on both Western and Vietnamese mythology and I enjoyed the deft touch of Vietnamese-influenced fantasy in particular. It gave The House of Shattered Wings distinction and freshness. I especially liked the hidden world under the Seine.
The Western angel fantasy wasn’t as appealing to me, being very much based on the Christian view of angels and Lucifer / Morningstar. (In Judaism angels are portrayed very differently so books featuring Christian and/or Miltonian portrayals require me to adjust my thinking).
The way different mythologies co-existed was fascinating and I wanted to know more about these deities’ relationships to each other and to their peoples. There was a small mention of minor Jewish mythological beings that niggled at me because the fallen angels’ God was portrayed as European and no mention was made of his having origins in the Middle East.
Sunita: I don’t have much knowledge or background in angel-oriented mythology (religious or otherwise), so that part sailed over my head. I just went with the depiction on the page. I found the integration of the supernatural and the aristocratic aspects intriguing. The little touches, like the carriages, the clothing choices, and the manners of address all contributed to a Fallen (heh) Gilded Age feel that worked well with the Parisian setting.
And it’s not surprising given De Bodard’s other work that the Vietnamese parts were so well executed, but it was very rewarding. As in the real world, the Viet people and cultures understood the Fallen/French people and cultures better than the reverse, and I liked the way the different POVs offered different levels of understanding. I would have liked to see more of the Viet sections as well, just because the were so intriguing, but the book probably worked better overall with that as a brief section.
Janine: Agreed. I also liked the way Morningstar’s reign at Silverspires was still felt, even two decades after his disappearance. For a missing character, he had more presence than some of Silverspires’ occupants, and this contributed to the novel’s haunting mood.
The narrative sets up readers to care about the fate of Silverspires, so there were times when I wished Philippe would cooperate with Selene more, but his resistance to doing so was the most natural, normal thing in the world, given his history with the west, with Houses and with Selene. Meanwhile Selene and Madeleine frustrated me by refusing to give Philippe the benefit of the doubt, although there, too, there was some reason for the distrust.
There are also wonderfully depicted secondary characters, from Selene’s lover Emmanuelle, a Fallen “manifested as African” to the softspoken Oris, Madeleine’s first assistant, to Asmodeus and Claire, the menacing heads of Houses Hawthorn and Lazarus. I loved the little details that went into crafting these characters, from Asmodeus’s horn-rimmed glasses to Claire’s own favorite accessory, a cluster of children.
Sunita: Morningstar never felt particularly real to me, more of a construct, even by the end of the story. I agree his ambiguous departure created a haunting mood, and the unresolved issues set up a lot of the conflicts.
In SFF particularly, I often read happily without developing much of an attachment to any of the characters. For me the worldbuilding and the intellectual aspects of the novel were so interesting that I found myself immersed in the world and the story without investing in any particular character’s journey, if that makes sense. Similarly, I didn’t see Silverspires as better than Hawthorn, just different (and I found Asmodeus in particular to be a complex and compelling character). But there is plenty here for readers whose reading enjoyment is enhanced by those kinds of attachments.
Janine: I hoped Philippe could find a way out, as well as a way to free himself from the thing in the mirror’s power. I wanted Isabelle to survive. I don’t know enough to say if Hawthorn was better or worse than Silverspires (and the question would also be for whom, since one thing the POV structure makes clear is that much is subjective), but I agree about Asmodeus.
I approached this novel thinking that it was a standalone. So, though I loved the first three quarters, the final quarter confounded me. I expected, if not a happy ending for one of the four characters, then at least a more pronounced growth arc for them, or a stronger sense of resolution.
Sunita: I think I’d read that de Bodard had been signed to a three-book deal when this one was announced, and I just assumed it would be the first in a series, since there are so few standalone SFFs (or any genre books these days). So I didn’t have the same experience as you. There are only partial resolutions, as you say, but I felt the characters grew and developed quite a bit despite the lack of finality. All of them (Isabelle, Philippe, Madeleine, Selene, and even Asmodeus) are in different places emotionally and psychologically at the end than they were when we met them.
Janine: I wish I’d known it was the first book in a trilogy because my aforementioned issues with Philippe, Madeleine and Selene were largely due to my wrong assumption. Even so, I enjoyed the first three quarters a great deal, so much that by the third quarter, it looked like an A- read. Although the last quarter brought my grade down to a B+, I will be reading on.
Sunita: I’ve been looking forward to this book for so long that I was nervous about starting it, and it took me a while to become immersed in it. But then I fell, and fell hard, into the story. It felt like the beginning of a longer text-reader relationship, but without any obvious cliffhangers. I also want to mention that there is an audiobook read by one of my favorite narrators, so I have a feeling that my reread will be a first listen. Grade: A-.